Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “neoliberalism”

Life Esidemeni — the elephant in the room

For the past few months a lot of news coverage has been given to the deaths of mental patients removed from Life Esidemini facilities to those of unlicensed ?NGOs. Questions have been asked about why they were moved without adequate preparation, and who decided that they should be moved, and who selected the places they should be moved to. I have no comments top make on that, and I’m sure answers will eventually emerge from the current investigations.

What concerns me now are the questions that are apparently not being asked. Such as:

  1. What is Life Esidemeni?
  2. Who decided that they should be in Life Esidemeni in the first place?
  3. What policies lay behind that?

I suspect that the policies that lay behind it were related to neoliberal principles of privatisation and outsourcing.

The Department of Health outsourced the care of mental patients to Life Esidemeni, which was under contract. This proved too expensive, so they decided to look for cheaper alternatives.

The trouble with outsourcing such things is that providing such facilities costs a great deal of money, and people who tender for such a contract are not likely to do so if it is likely to be put out for tender again in a few years. To make life secure for mental patients, the Department of Health should provide its own facilities, or should at least own the land and building on which the facilities are locates, so that if they put it out to tender again they can at least disturb the life of patients as little as possible. If the contract proves too expensive, then there would be no need to move the patients.

It’s not enough to investigate this particular incident, but the policies that lie behind it also need to be scrutinised.

Saving the Soul of Secularism

Recently someone sent me, quite unsolicited, a link to this article Saving the Soul of Secularism:

Since February 2003, millions in the U.S. and around the world have participated in marches, rallies and varied protests, making a bold, ethical stand against U.S. military aggression. Citizens have engaged in persistent resistance to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of U.S troops.

While numerous humanists have and continue to be actively involved in the anti-war movement many others are too narrowly focused on issues such as church-state separation and promoting science education.

The time has come for humanists to actively assert that they are as committed to peace and ending U.S. militarism as they are to the separation of church and state. If we can see the threat to freedom posed by the mixture of church and state, we must see the threat to freedom posed by militarism.

The very legitimacy of secularism and freethought is at stake. Humanists, atheists, and assorted freethinkers along with the organizations that represent them: the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Secular Student Alliance, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry, among others, should join anti-war/peace organizations in calling for a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy away from neo-liberal imperialism and militarism.

This strikes me as very strange.

I can understand why humanists, who believe that human beings have intrinsic value, might see militarism as a threat to human freedom and therefore a bad thing.

What I find difficult to understand is the logic of urging atheists to support such a cause. I can see no logical connection between atheism and a response to militarism (or to pacifism, for that matter). There is nothing about atheism that makes it desirable that atheists should join anti-war or peace organisations. There is also nothing about atheism that makes it undesirable. Atheism, as atheism, is surely quite neutral in regard to such moral imperatives.

Why should an atheist, by virtue of being an atheist, believe that neoliberal imperialism is a bad thing? Some atheists have clearly believed that it is quite a good thing.

It is possibile to say, as Marx and Lenin did, that it is incumbent on a communist to be an atheist. But the reverse is not true. It is not incumbent on an atheist to be a communist. An atheist can just as easily be a neoliberal imperialist.

This seems to be “fluffy bunny” secularism, as some of my (neo) pagan friends would say. They seem to be getting carried away by moralism.

Sales of Marx soar

The recession and the collapse of many capitalist economies has resulted in a boom for booksellers — at least in the sales of the works of Karl Marx.

Thoroughly Modern Marx : NPR:

The economic crisis has spawned a resurgence of interest in Karl Marx. Worldwide sales of Das Kapital have shot up (one lone German publisher sold thousands of copies in 2008, compared with 100 the year before), a measure of a crisis so broad in scope and devastation that it has global capitalism -— and its high priests -— in an ideological tailspin.

Yet even as faith in neoliberal orthodoxies has imploded, why resurrect Marx? To start, Marx was far ahead of his time in predicting the successful capitalist globalization of recent decades. He accurately foresaw many of the fateful factors that would give rise to today s global economic crisis what he called the ‘contradictions’ inherent in a world comprised of competitive markets commodity production and financial speculation.

In the 1980s neoliberalism was advocated as the panacea for the world’s economic ills. The fact that the “structural adjustment programmes” imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had a disastrous effect on health and education in much of Africa did not seem to worry the proponents of neoliberalism very much. By the 1990s many advocates of neoliberalism were saying that socialism was dead.

And in the 1990s many people could be excused for thinking that Marx’s ideas had been shown to be wrong, and that there could never be a revival of interest in them. Most of the “socialist” countries had abandoned socialism, and often followed the advice of neoliberal Westerners to liberalise their economics as well as their politics. In Russia the immediate result of this was a drastic drop in life-expecatancy, as health services deteriorated. Another result was a gangsterisation of the economy.

And, as the article quoted above points out, much of this was predicted by Marx. Capitalism has changed a great deal in the 150 years since Marx wrote about it, but some of the fundamentals remain the same.

But while Marx was quite good at analysing the weaknesses of capitalism, his proposals for alternatives were not as successful. And some of his fundamentalist followers who tried to apply his solutions in a spirit of ideological correctness regardless of their practical effects produced results as disastrous of those of the neoliberals.

So we should not be surprised that the sales of Marx’s works are booming. But we can hope that the buyers will pay more attention to Marx’s analysis of the problems than to some of the solutions proposed by him and his followers in the past.

Perhaps the adage of G.K. Chesterton can be applied to this, mutatis mutandis: “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism, but there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.”

And so I hope that people will say, “As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in socialism, but there was once a rosy time of innocence when I believed in socialists.”

Trade unionists and communists in South Africa seem to have the unhappy knack of allying themselves to all the wrong people and causes, and attacking all the wrong targets. Here in South Africa we have an example of unrestrained capitalism that the government dare not control, and which is a magnificent example of the application of neoliberalism in practice — the taxi industry. I would love to see someone do a Marxist analysis of that.

Time to curb the ‘asset strippers and robbers’ who ruin the financial markets, say archbishops -Times Online

For more than thirty years the ideology of neoliberalism has spread throughout the world. It was enthusiastically propagated in the Reagan-Thatcher years and led to the mania for privatisation, which continues in South Africa and has led to the deterioration of our roads, the quality of our water, and many other things.

Church leaders have been slow to speak out about these things. It takes a well-publicised financial crisis to get people like the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to start using words like “idolatry” when referring to it in public.

Time to curb the ‘asset strippers and robbers’ who ruin the financial markets, say archbishops -Times Online:

Leaders of the Church of England launched fierce attacks on the world’s stock market traders last night, condemning them as bank robbers and asset strippers and calling for a judicial review into Britain’s financial services.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York demanded stronger regulation and an end to speculation and living on debt.

Dr Rowan Williams spoke out in defence of Karl Marx, defending key aspects of his critique of capitalism and gave a warning that society was running the risk of idolatry in its relationship with wealth.

(Hat-tip to Fr David MacGregor)

The hidden and unintended consequences of the privatisation mania are now beginning to appear. Mutual building societies and insurance cooperatives went commercial, bribing thier members with “windfall” shares (actually, it was only part of their investment received in advance — they were mortgaging their future value to external shareholders). Some of them, like the Old Mutual, continue to use the word “mutual” in their names, to deceive the public. The Old Mutual should actually be called the “New Commercial”. One result of this can be seen in the collapse of Northern Rock in Britain.

Another unintended and unforeseen consequence of the privatisation mania can be seen in the deterioration of the quality of South Africa’s water.

News – Environment: SA water quality is fast deteriorating:

South Africa’s water quality is fast deteriorating but the shrinking scientific and engineering capacity to counter this is emerging as the ‘real crisis’ to strike the country.

This is according to Dr Anthony Turton, a senior water researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who maintains that up to 50 percent of municipalities ‘do not even have one qualified engineer’ on their staff…

“The original work for that was done in the 1980s in massive programmes based at the CSIR,” says Turton. “Those programmes generated many PhD graduates, but also did the primary science on which future management will be based.

“Those programmes are no longer in existence and this is a national crisis of note. We need to recover the bits and pieces we can and then develop new national capacity,” says Turton…

“Nowhere else in the world is this happening so we cannot turn to other countries and say: ‘Please help us’. We as a nation will be required to solve this problem as a nation. This is where national science councils come in. They are national assets, but the current funding models are so restrictive that their potential is being reduced and the capacity they have is being privatised.”

The privatisation of national resources like the CSIR was begun under the National Party government in the 1980s, and has continued under the Thatcherist policies of the ANC. One of the reasons that our water supply has deteriorated under privatisation is that nobody stands to make a lot of money out of water research.

And only when it is actually staring them in the face do Christian leaders publicly speak out, and then mostly against the symptoms, not about the causes of the disease, which has been growing unchecked in the Western world since the 1980s, and metastatising throughout the world through globalisation.

It’s payback time, says Cosatu

The Congress of South African Trade Unions wants a quid pro quo for its support of Jacob Zuma at the ANC conference last December.

clipped from

The past week has been marked by high drama for the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Not only did it fire its president, Willy Madisha, it had to fight openly with ANC president Jacob Zuma and agitate loudly for additional seats on the new ANC national executive committee.

Vavi declared the Zuma-Cosatu honeymoon over: “The campaign to save the ANC from the clutches of the technocrats who sought to bureaucratise the liberation movement is far from being over. The ‘rescue mission’ post-Polokwane is on.”

Zuma’s trilogy of sins included business-friendly statements at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, clear support for the Budget tabled by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel despite Vavi’s concerns, and a business- friendly interview with the Financial Mail post-Budget.

These were seen as cardinal sins given the unconditional support the trade union movement gave Zuma in the mighty succession struggle .

blog it

Raenette Taljaard thinks that this will be bad for South Africa and concludes by saying in The Times – Article:

This week at least Cosatu loudly proclaimed what it wanted — which it has a right to do. But what all South Africans undoubtedly want is a leader who is not fundamentally weak and beholden to group interests, a leader who can truly lead without having to weigh every word to assess its “payback” consequences, a leader who can adjudicate a multitude of competing interests in a complex society, not one who simply makes decisions based on loyalties.

Which is true, of course, and was obvious right from the moment that Jacob Zuma was elected ANC president at Polokwane in December. It was clear that Zuma’s primary merit was not that he would be a good leader, but that he would be an electable one. Cosatu could have found lots of more capable candidates who could promote its interests, and perhaps do so out of conviction rather than out of a sense of obligation. But it is doubtful whether enough support could be garnered from other groups for such a person to be elected.

The problem is that for the last 14 years Cosatu has been neglected by the ANC leadership, except at election time when its support is needed. Though Cosatu was part of the tripartite alliance, its voice has been ignored, especially when it comes to issues such as the ANC’s Thatcherist privatisation policies.

I don’t know how many courses of action were open to Cosatu, but I can see at least two. One would be to break from the Tripartite alliance and form a new left opposition party. The advantage of that would be that it would bring a touch of reality to South African politics, with a real political alternative. If Cosatu had done that, I might have voted for them.

The disadvantage is that it could drive South Africa down the same road as Zimbabwe, driving the ANC even further to the right, so that it might, if the worst came to the worst, resemble Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. One should always remember that Cosatu represents the same constituency in South Africa that the MDC represents in Zimbabwe — the urban workers.

So I’m not very surprised that Cosatu did not opt for that course. Politics is the art of the possible, and if the possible is a broad coalition of interests backing a candidate who needs to repay favours, then that’s the way it must be. That’s the way it works in most democratic countries anyway.

Postcolonial Christianity in Africa

I’ve recently heard quite a number of people (well, read on their blogs rather than “heard”) saying that they are “post colonial Christians”. Actually I think I recall Brian McLaren saying something about post-colonial Christianity when he visited Pretoria last year too.

My difficulty is in trying to work out what this “Post-colonial Christianity” that people talk about actually is. What do people mean when they talk about “postcolonial Christianity”? This is one of those blog posts where I toss in a lot of half-baked ideas in the hope that other people will help me to bake them — and especially those people who regard themselves as “postcolonial Christians” — what is it that makes them such, other than pure chronology?

One of the things that I found helpful was a blog post by Julie Clawson, at One hand clapping, on Cultural Imperialism, Contextualization, and Postcolonial Missions. What she described is a good example of what postcolonial mission is most decidedly NOT, which can help to clarify one’s thinking on the topic, except that it is from an American rather than an African point of view.

A step forward, and what actually got me thinking more seriously about this, was reading The Cambridge history of Christianity. Volume 9: World Christianities c.1914-c.2000. Actually the title is a bit misleading — the book is quite specifically about Western Christianity and its offshoots, but still, this is what it says about postcolonial Africa:

Autocratic regimes prevailed until the end of the 1980s when a combination of forces led to their demise. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War deprived states of Western or Eastern benefactors and of legitimating models of communist dictatorship. Moreover, events in Eastern Europe inspired a revived and resurgent civil society to challenge near bankrupt regimes. A ‘second democratic revolution’ ensued as more than half of sub-Saharan African states made political reforms and moved toward multi-party democracy. In this revolution the churches played a leading role. Sadly, however, the political transformation begun at the end of the 1980s was shortlived. In a new world dominated by America the new regimes had to embrace neo-liberal economics of trade liberalisation, privatisation and diminished state provision in the form of structural adjustment programmes ordained by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. While such policies benefited a minority of African businessmen working for international companies, they stifled local enterprise, boosted unemployment, and led to new levels of poverty, crime and violence. Worse still, many of the newly elected leaders of multi- party regimes were ‘born-again’ politicians from the previous generation of politicians. Their conversions to democracy proved to be superficial and they were barely distinguishable from their predecessors. Soon they learnt how to stay in power by dividing opposition parties and manipulating elections and constitutions while satisfying international pressure. Their governments became de facto one- party regimes. Thus from the mid-1990s Africa’s churches have been involved in a third democratic revolution. This revolution is against ‘presidential third-termism’ — the tendency of leaders to cling to office. It is a struggle for incorrupt ‘transparency’ and the development of electoral institutions, and a struggle for a democratic political culture. Only through such a revolution can African states begin to reconnect with the needs and aspirations of their citizens (McLeod 2006:405).

We have seen attempts at the ‘third democratic revolution’ in Kenya, where it was stifled, and at the December ANC congress, where the levers of power in the ANC were prised from the clutches of those who had hitherto held them. What is the role of postcolonial Christians in all that?

Five years ago we had SACLA II, the Southern African Christian Leadership Assembly, but where did it get us? We were supposed to face up to the “giants” that threatened our society, which included unemployment, poverty, crime and violence. But there seemed to be a reluctance to face up to the giants behind the giants — America, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, structural adjustment programmes and the ideology of neoliberalism that they have been peddling to African governments. My recollection of SACLA II was that some American came round and gave out free copies of a rather kitschy book called The prayer of Jabez, which seemed to be a good example of what Karl Marx described as “the opium of the people.”

So what IS postcolonial Christianity? And what is it going to do about the “giants”? And what will happen when Jacob Zuma and umshini wakhe doesn’t turn out to be the kind of saviour that people are apparently hoping for?

Health and healing – private profit from public misery

Pickled Bushman reviews Michael Moore’s latest documentary: Sicko (or American refugees in Cuba) showing the ravages wrought by the privatisation mania on the American health-care system, which has slipped from being among the best in the world to 32nd place, just above Slovenia.

The same thing has struck South Africa, since neoliberalism took off in the Reagan/Thatcher years.

Actually the problem is not so much privatisation as commercialisation. One of the things that caused a huge slide in South African health-care services was the nationalisation of all church hospitals in the “homelands” in 1973. This has been documented by Dr Darryl Hackland, who had been Medical Superintendent of Bethesda Hospital (Methodist) in Zululand, and after it was nationalised became a senior official in the KwaZulu Department of Health. The church hospitals were run by “private enterprise”, but the difference was that they were not run for profit.

In the 1980s there was a reprivatisation of health services, but this did not take place in the poorer areas of the country, but in the rich ones. The government at the time (under PW Botha) followed the Reagan/Thatcher ideology, and encouraged the formation of commercial clinics, in which doctors owned shares. It was privatisation for profit.

Medical Aid schemes have been infected as well. They were formerly socialist bodies, owned and run by their members, as a form of mutual aid. Now many of them are owned by outside shareholders. They no longer speak of members, but “customers”. They no longer provide health care, but “products”. They advertise, and refer to themselves as “financial services providers”. Beware of any “financial services provider” that tries to sell you a “product”. Whenever anyone uses the term “product” for a service, financial or otherwise, it is a pretty sure indication that they are simply out to rip you off. They offer “rewards”, like club memberships, and cards that give you discounts in stores — but be sure of one thing, you are paying for these things, even if you don’t use them, and what these frivolities mean is that you get less health care for your money, because your money is being wasted on advertising and promotion and putting money into the pockets of shareholders.

The ANC when it came to power in 1994 has basically continued the policies of the National Party under PW Botha. There have been ritual pronouncements to placate their alliance partners, like Cosatu, but basically nothing has changed.

One thing they could do, for a start, would be to set up a tax structure so that not-for-profit mutual Medical Aid schemes are not taxed, and that commercial ones, making profits for outside shareholders, and ones that run superfluous “incentive” schemes not related to their core business are also taxed. (The same should be done for mutual building societies and life assurance providers.)

Also, “faith-based” and other non-profit private health service providers should be encouraged in a similar way.

I can’t speak for other faiths, but from a Christian point of view, Jesus sent out his disciples to preach and to heal, and said “Freely ye have received, freely give.” Before 1973, when the provincial governments subsidised church hopspitals, they got a better service for their money than they did when the central government nationalised the services, and then later devolved them to the “homeland” governments. Why? Because Christian doctors and nurses went to work in those hospitals, not for the sake of financial gain, but because of a desire to obey the command of Jesus to “heal the sick”. When the government took them over, they found it difficult to get staff willing to work in the mainly rural areas where the church hospitals were to be found, and resorted to using army conscript medical students. Secular doctors were out for money, and only wanted to work in the big cities, where they could specialise in the diseases of the rich.

Doctors in private practice did, of course, have to charge fees in order to make a living. Even healers have to eat. But when they worked on their own, or in small partnerships, they could treat the poor and needy for reduced fees, or even, in hard cases, waive the fees altogether. Where, however, they work for clinics run as for-profit companies, this is much more difficult when the fees are paid to the company, and every reduction of fees for poor patient means a reduced profit for the shareholders.

The Orthodox Church has several saints who were medical doctors, and known as “anargyri” (silverless ones), usually translated into English as “unmercentary doctors”. Among them are three pairs of brothers called Cosmas and Damian, perhaps because the later ones consciously followed the example of the earlier ones.

Until now the ANC government has done little more than try to force mercenary doctors, clinics and medical aid scemes to serve the poor. But it might do better to encourage the unmercenary ones, for example by differential taxes, as suggested above.

More on neoliberalism, from The Antidote

A few days ago I wrote about neoliberalism, and the bad effects it was having on South African education. Now The Antidote tells more about the bad effects it is having on water supplies.

In 2000, a cholera outbreak around Ngwelezane in rural KZN killed nearly 200 people and infected more than 80 000 others. Why the outbreak? The government had recently terminated a 17-year-long, apartheid-era supply of free water. Those too poor to buy their water found themselves forced to gather it from wherever they could find it, storm drains, dirty rivers, stagnant pools…. hence the cholera.


(Then) Wits academic Patrick Bond is just one of the critics blaming our government for adopting neoliberal economic policies that put profit before people. Government is turning basic services like water and electricity into commodities, and then selling them off to the highest bidder. From there, it’s a quick step to insist upon a 100% cost recovery model from ‘customers’, regardless of how poor these individuals may be. No money, no water.

What prompted our government to take such a step? For a lot of reasons, but not least of which the fact that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have made no bones about the fact that they will be plenty cheesed off if SA doesn’t go this route. In the words of writer-activist Ashwin Desai, ‘our transition to democracy… was trumped by the transition to neoliberalism’.

I will never forget Nelson Mandela saying, when it had become clear that the ANC had won the election in 1994, that one thing was not negotiable — the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). And within a year it had been negotiated away.

Liberalism, neoliberalism and neocons

Since electronic communication made it possible to communicate regularly and frequently with people in other continents I’ve discovered that many Americans seem to regard “classical liberalism” and neoliberalism as the same thing.

For most of my life I’ve regarded myself as a Liberal, and was for a time a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party until it was forced to disband by the Prohibition of Improper Interference Act.

But I was (and am) a political liberal, not an economic liberal. I had always thought that “classical liberalism” was primarily political liberalism, and though there was sometimes a connection with laissez faire economics, it was not a necessary connection. Neoliberalism refered to economic liberalism, pure and simple.

A recent post by Dionysius Stoned, on Foucault, Governmentality and Neoliberalism, has, however, helped to clarify things for me. In this post Dionysius Stoned says:

Lemke points out that Foucault’s lectures suggest two key points of disjuncture between classical liberalism and neoliberalism. The first concerns the relation between the state and the economy. Here Foucault points out that if classic liberalism, resting on “the historical experience of an overtly powerful and absolutist state”, had seen in the latter the role of ‘defining’ and ‘monitoring’ market freedom, this conception is “inverted” under the neoliberal model. Here, rather than the “state supervising the market,” the market becomes the organising principle underlying the state…[n]eoliberalism removes the limiting external principle and puts a regulatory and inner principle [of the market] in its place”. The second difference relates to the basis of government. Arguing that neoliberalisim takes as its “central point of reference and support” the figure of homo economicus, Foucault discussion goes on to show how this conception nevertheless departs from that of classic liberalism. Following off from the prior shift that recodes the social as the economic, neoliberalism enables the extension of economic precepts, “cost benefit calculations and market criteria”, to a whole spectrum of human practice. This conception of homo economicus – honing in on an image of an economically motivated individual who always makes decisions on the basis sound (“rational”) cost benefit analysis – no longer resembles that of the classic liberal philosophers. If the latter, moving from a reductive conception “man’s nature,” had believed that the “freedom of the individual is the technical precondition of rational government” – which government could not constrain without calling into question its own foundation – neoliberalism would no longer take as its point of reference “some pregiven human nature.” Lemke explains:

Neoliberalism no longer locates the rational principle for regulating and limiting the action of government in a natural freedom that we should all respect, but instead it posits an artificially arranged liberty: in the entrepreneurial and competitive behaviours of economic-rational individuals. Whereas in the classic liberal conception, homo oeconomiscus forms an external limits and the inviolable core of governmental action, in the neo-liberal thought of the Chicago school he becomes a behavioristically manipulable being and the correlative of a governmentality which systematically changes the variable “environment” and can rightly expects that individuals are characterised by “rational choice”

Now I’m not an economist and some of Foucault’s terminology is way beyond me (I can form no clear conception of a “discursive field”). But translating it into the terms of a discipline closer to home — theology — that tends to confirm what I have long thought: that neoliberalism is idolatry, because it seeks to make man bow down and worship economic forces and give them rule. It pretends not to do this, of course, by using the rhetoric of “rational choice”, but tends to assume that a “rational” choice is one governed mainly  by economic values and considerations.

Then there is another blog post, by “The Antidote”, on the subject of South Africa’s neoCon spin factory, from which it appears that neocons are practically indistinguishable from neoliberals. As with classical liberalism and laissez faire economics, I am not sure that there is a necessary connection between neocons and neoliberalism, but they seem to coincide most of the time.

And if you remove the “neo” it seems to make little difference either. American “liberals” and “conservatives” alike seem to have a penchant for bombing countries where the name of the capital city begins with B.

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